Friday, March 12, 2010

Authority, Entertainment, & Wisdom

There are three kinds of authority. One is the kind that is earned, though it may or may not be officially recognized. A trade worker has earned authority on a given subject or task through years of training. A grandpa may have earned authority on love through years of living. His words should be revered and taken to heart. His imperfections may still abound, but they have been tempered by a wisdom that has come at some personal cost. He has the authority of a Grandpa.

The second kind of authority may or may not be earned, but it is given. Whether the one receiving this authority is 'worthy' of it is beside the point. A morally repugnant man can be given the authority to be a judge or a police officer. His personal morality has nothing to do with the mantle of authority that has been placed upon him or entrusted to him. A president, a king, a pastor or a priest is given authority at the mercy of God.

When someone of the first kind of authority speaks, he is worth listening to. His words may be imperfect, but he has earned the right to be heard. When someone of the second kind of authority speaks, we may be obligated to listen simply because of the mantle that has been placed upon them, whether they are worthy or not. I can obey the words of a pastor or a police officer, even if their lives do not reflect the truth they are presenting. A cop who is reselling drugs he has seized can still write me a speeding ticket. A pastor who's having an affair with his secretary can still exhort me to love my neighbour.

But the most excellent person of authority is one who has both been granted it and earned it. Like a wise old priest who has never stopped the learning, studying, and living out of the love of God. If a person of authority can exemplify in his or her life a certain integrity in the wearing of their mantle, they are a particularly powerful force. Personal sacrifice of some kind can be seen in their lives, and it gives their authoritative words more gravity.

In our culture, we often get our lines of authority mixed up. Nothing is more annoying than an out-of-touch celebrity giving heavy-handed political or moral advice. We often rally behind the words of a performer, without looking at what they have done, or what they have been given, in order to claim to speak with authority. We mistake entertainers for wise men, and fools for sages.

And then there's the actors. We tend to listen to them too much, too.

Confusing entertainment for news information is nothing new. It was happening before the days of William Randolph Hearst, and will continue past the days of Rush Limbaugh and CNN. Of course, it's always been tantalizing to throw political commentary into that mix. It tends to really get people fired up, and makes a lot of money for the people doing the tantalizing.

Which brings me to the third kind of authority. It's the authority given by the masses. It's the giving over of the mind or will to the authority of celebrity, the authority of the entertainer. It's why we have Paris Hiltons and Perez Hiltons and Glenn Becks and Bill O'Reillys. Few of these people have earned the first kind of authority. Even less have been given the second kind. Yet it seems the authority of the third kind can sometimes be the most powerful. Entertainers take on the guise of political commentators, and the effect of their words upon people and culture can be frightening.

Their words tend to be very polarizing, and are often wrapped in fear-based language. Facts and reason, nuance and thoughtfulness, are cast aside. Intelligent and informed debate have no place. And so we get, as we did today, entertainers such as ___________ saying ridiculous things such as _______________, speaking as authorities on matters in which they have not earned it and have not been given it, except by the authority of the multitude.

The multitude gives them the authority to speak, and the multitude is always wrong.

Meanwhile, the quiet voice of reason is missed by the chanting crowds. While wisdom may call aloud on the street, she cannot rant and scream. She dwells together with prudence, she possesses knowledge and discretion. Her authority is earned, and her mantle worn with grace.

She also reminds me not to become angry or anxious about the latest foolishness preached by the latest fool. This too shall pass, she says, because the multitudes are sand pebbles, and the fool builds his kingdom upon them.

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